On Confirmation

by Boniface Luykx


An important and interesting article on when the Sacrament of Confirmation should be conferred and how postponement is contrary to the Church's ancient tradition.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Catholic Polls, Inc., November 1972

It is not easy in our day and age to see clearly through the problems which are involved in the sacrament of confirmation and to achieve the right pastoral approach to this sacrament. Some of the reasons for this are:

1. From the time of the late Middle Ages, this sacrament has been thoroughly neglected[1] to the extent that oftentimes it was not even administered. Men would ask: "If baptism and the Eucharist contain the whole sacramental grace, why bother that faraway Lord Bishop with the administration of a sacrament that is not necessary?" This neglect had further distorted the pastoral and theological approach to the sacrament, since the bishop was its minister. Who dared to question the acts of this Church authority (in that past time!) or criticize his "privileges"?

This explains why, in the case of confirmation, the liturgical revival was confronted with an untracked area. It also shows how some quite unusual and apparently "logical" tendencies could arise contrary to the sound sacramental theology of the Church, but seemingly justified because of pastoral reasons, for example, the age for administering it, its relation to the Eucharist and so forth. These theories made things even more complicated, especially because there was no real theology of confirmation to answer them.

2. As for practice, a typically Western approach had grown throughout the last centuries to separate confirmation from its twin sacrament of baptism, and thereby from its final consummation in the Eucharist. A rather abusive practice — contrary to the whole tradition of the universal Church still kept in the East, in Spain, in southern Italy and in Latin America — a practice which originated in the Frankish Church because of a lack of bishops and the great size of their dioceses was later theoretically justified by the argument that the bishop is de iure the minister ordinarius of confirmation, an argument which is now very rightly abandoned by the new rite of confirmation (n. 7).

An age for delay is fixed

In C.I.C. 788 and in other canonical statements, this fact of the separation of the two stages of Christian initiation is accepted, but at the same time a term is fixed for this postponement: the age of discretion (6-7 years of age), and in any case before first Holy Communion. This we can derive from the commentaries on these canons and especially from a letter of Pope Leo XIII to the archbishop of Marseille, later sent to other bishops who had the same problems. The French text elucidates the following points[2]: "The practice of confirming about the age of 12 and after first Holy Communion does not conform either to the ancient and constant discipline of the Church or to the benefit of the faithful . . . the faithful need, from their youngest age on, to be clothed with the strength from on high which the sacrament of confirmation has to give, . . When the children are confirmed very early, they will be more docile in accepting the commandments, and they can better prepare to receive the Eucharist and they will draw from it more abundant fruit."

3. Perhaps it is not easy to accept fully this view of the sacrament and the tradition of the universal Church as normative (even if one of the Apostolic Churches, the Western Church, has for a certain time abandoned this practice, under "political" pressure of her specific circumstances, and not for theological reasons). This is particularly difficult since a new theological approach tends to impose itself, that is, postponing confirmation until the age of adulthood. This theology arises from theological premises to which not even one serious theologian will still subscribe, namely that confirmation is the sacrament of Christian adulthood.[3]

It suffices to know how this misconception of linking confirmation with Christian maturity came about: it is built on erroneous interpretations of false Decretals. It would truly be a pity if the American Church would continue to build an entire sacramental practice on false theological and historical premises, thus foregoing the real discipline of the universal Church from of old. This has been possible for a short period of time, in some countries where such a false approach was built up because almost nothing regarding the theology of Confirmation, existed before, except these wrong applications of false Decretals and a misunderstood "pastoral" approach to this sacrament.

Church unity is jeopardized

4. The ecumenical implications of the problem are more serious than we sometimes tend to think. As has rightly been pointed out,[4] by separating confirmation from its "twin brother," baptism, and postponing it until adulthood, we will put such a serious stumbling block on the road to unity with the Eastern Churches that it will never be overcome, unless we come back to the "ancient and constant discipline of the universal Church" (Leo XIII). If this is the inevitable issue, why not stop, right in the very beginning, from going in the wrong direction? As for the Protestant Churches (at least those which have preserved confirmation), for them the situation is not ambiguous either: they all keep the integrity of Christian initiation and the organic succession of its three stages. This means that every departure from the apostolic tradition would result in a widening of the gap that separates us.

Therefore, what at first may seem to be a pastoral advantage, would, in the long-range view, mean a theological mistake and an ecumenical impediment; and these two disadvantages would far outweigh the precarious (and perhaps false, as we will see further on) pastoral advantage.

What is the Church's teaching on the sacrament?

1. There is no doubt about the intention of the Council Fathers of Vatican II. When they prescribed in n. 71 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that the rite of confirmation should be revised in order to set forth more lucidly the intimate connection of this sacrament with the whole of Christian initiation, and that hence (at least) the candidates should renew their baptismal promises before Confirmation, it was primarily to restore the organic unity and the divinely instituted sequence of the three stages of Christian initiation: baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist.

2. This approach is now confirmed by the new rite of confirmation, as can be seen from the following texts:

"Those who have been baptized continue the path of Christian initiation through the sacrament of confirmation" (n. 1).

"Adult catechumens, who are to be confirmed immediately after baptism . . ." (n. 3).

(The parents) "prepare them (the children) for the fruitful reception of the sacraments of confirmation and the Eucharist" (n. 3).

"The original minister of confirmation is the bishop . . . In addition to the bishop, the law gives the faculty to confirm to the following:

a. Apostolic administrators who are not bishops;

b. Priests who . . . baptize an adult or a child old enough for catechesis, or admit a validly baptized adult into full communion with the Church; c. In danger of death . . . pastors etc.; in the absence of all the preceding, any priest . . ." (n. 7).

"In case of true necessity and special reason, e.g., the large number of persons to be confirmed, the minister of confirmation, . . may associate other priests with himself in the administration of this sacrament. It is required that these priests:

a. have a particular function or office in the diocese;

b. be the pastors of the places where confirmation is conferred, pastors of the places where the candidates belong or the priests who have taken a special part in the catechetical preparation of the candidates" (n, 8).

Confirmation is linked to baptism

"Adult catechumens and children who are baptized at an age when they can be catechized should ordinarily be admitted to confirmation and the Eucharist at the same time they receive baptism . . . Similarly, adults who are baptized in infancy should, after a suitable preparation, receive confirmation and the Eucharist in a common celebration" (n. II).

"Ordinarily confirmation takes place within the Mass in order to express more clearly the fundamental connection of this sacrament with the entirety of Christian initiation. The latter reaches its culmination in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ" (n. 13).

Further on, in the prayer before the laying on of hands (n. 24 and n, 41 of the confirmation rite itself) the organic link with baptism is clearly expressed as its completion (p. 3 and 10-11), and is repeated again in n. 52 (p. 15): "It is of great importance that the initiation of every baptized Christian be completed in the sacrament of confirmation and the Eucharist."

3. There is no possible doubt that these texts represent not only the true "ancient and constant discipline of the universal Church," but also the normative heritage of the Lord himself and the mind of the present authority in the Church, which has again clearly taken up this apostolic heritage. However, it is a disappointing experience to find, next to this evidently primary intention, some other texts which seem to contradict the first (e.g. n, 11, para. 2, on the possibility of the delaying of confirmation under certain circumstances; n. 12, para. 5, on postponing confirmation until after marriage). These texts seem to have been imposed by certain pressure groups or trends. We do not question their right intention, but it is our firm conviction that the Western Church has already suffered enough harm without carrying on with disparaging the apostolic Church tradition under the pretext of pastoral needs which nobody is supposed to question.

Some new practices are exceptions

As the texts indicate, these regulations, or rather concessions, have to be considered as derogations to the basic principles explained above, only permissible for "pastoral reasons". These were accepted only under the pressure of the above trends, which either did not want to "go too fast" in the renewal or which considered even false "pastoral reasons" enough to give up some basic theological principles. These concessions to pressure largely diminish the theological and liturgical value of the introduction to the new rite of confirmation. So, for example, I imagine that every serious theologian will have great difficulty in justifying the (emergency) permission to postpone, in some cases, confirmation until after marriage.

It seems to me that we would follow a wrong policy in building our future "discipline" and pastoral practice of confirmation on some derogatory concessions rather than on the sound principles of the true "ancient and constant discipline of the universal Church," especially if we would do this under pressure of the same false theological premises, as explained above.[5] There is no doubt that the trend of the theological development in the Church goes the opposite way.

When should it be conferred?

What is to be said about the unity of the twin-sacraments, baptism and confirmation, and the age of the receiver?

1. Our approach to the sacrament of confirmation will be fundamentally enriched when we keep in mind some basic principles. For example, the medieval term for confirmation, "augmentum ad gratiam," meant only "completion of (the sacramental grace) of baptism." The "maturity" they spoke of is not the physical maturity already obtained but the overall and particularly spiritual maturity still to be obtained, as Pope Leo XIII points out in his letter.

This approach implies, first, that baptism is unachieved, incomplete, without its "completion" (confirmatur) in confirmation, Baptism in water calls for baptism in the Spirit (our confirmation, not to be confused with the "baptism in the Spirit" of pentecostal groups). "Plunging into Christ" (baptismos, plunging into) has to be "confirmed" by "plunging into the Spirit": both sacraments, our baptism and our confirmation, belong together as one twin sacrament. Both confer their own sacramental grace, but in reference to each other.[6]

2. They can be separated in time (there is no theological reason opposed to this), but always under condition that no other sacramental act (for example, Eucharist, anointing of the sick, marriage) be placed in between. To do this would mean a real and substantial distortion of the divinely instituted sequence of Christian initiation. This applies especially to the Eucharist, as I have shown in my study, "Confirmation in Relation to the Eucharist."[7] Confirmation has a special relation to the Eucharist and therefore has to be received before first Holy Communion, because it is meant as the immediate qualification to the Eucharist.

As B. Bottee rightly points out in his study (op. cit., p. 850), baptism of infants, though attacked by several groups of dissidents, is a dogmatic fact, justified by an ancient and universal tradition of the Church. Equally important is the dogmatic fact of confirmation for children and its inseparable unity with baptism. Even during the periods of the deepest sacramental decadence in Western Europe, in the countries where confirmation was still administered, for example, in Belgium, southern Holland and Western Germany, this sacrament was given together with baptism between the days right after birth and the age of three. The pastors of parishes where a visiting bishop discovered children older than three years who were not yet confirmed were severely punished.

Delaying confirmation; wrong

The argument that confirmation should be postponed until the age of full awareness so that the receiver fully "knows what he is doing" is, again, built on a wrong sacramental approach. Since confirmation is rather the completion of baptism and achieves this primary Christian commitment, a fortiori baptism should be postponed until that age, because there you make the "fundamental option" that engages your whole life. All the rest follows from that as the Council of Trent teaches. The theological reasons that justify infant baptism apply much more to confirmation, Moreover, this approach still proceeds from the wrong assumption of confirmation being the sacrament of adulthood, of the Christian soldier and so forth.

Best time: the beginning of school

Therefore, when C.I.C. 788, resumed by the new rite, n. II, para. 2, allows confirmation to be postponed until about 7 years of age, this is meant as a terminus ante quem and means at any rate before first Holy Communion, The best moment, psychologically seen and for the majority of the children, would probably be their entrance into kindergarten or grade school, i.e., at the moment they take their first steps from home into "the world". To "understand" or grasp a little the meaning of confirmation, they do not need much "catechesis" — much less than for Holy Communion. If one would like to invoke the principle: Sacramenta propter homines, and want to conclude from that the postponement of confirmation until the age of adulthood, the case is just the opposite, as Pope Leo XIII rightly stated and as the new rite states in principle, n. II, para. 3: we may not deprive the children of the benefit of this sacrament which is precisely meant for their growth to adulthood. This should be the primary concern of the true pastoral approach to confirmation; the rest is secondary (if not oftentimes romanticism).[8] If we postpone confirmation, we should, therefore, also postpone first Holy Communion, as is proven above.

3. This brings about the problem of the minister of Confirmation. As we have already pointed out, the bishop is not to be seen anymore as the ordinary minister. He has the original right, and every administration of confirmation by a priest retains a reference to him, even as in the Eastern Churches because the chrism always has to be consecrated by the bishop, whereas the priest may consecrate the oil of the sick. What is of primary "episcopal" importance is not the sacrament of confirmation but Christian initiation as a whole, the reception of new candidates into the people of God, whose head and father is the bishop. Therefore, he should, as much as possible, preside over every initiation (baptism, confirmation and first Holy Communion, in one and the same celebration) of adults in his diocese and then make of it a real, communal celebration.

Who ministers the sacrament?

Whenever he cannot do this, this function automatically passes to his "representative" in that area, who is the pastor, the real father (under the bishop) of his flock. It will be proven in the near future that this will be the only means to implement fully the new rite and apply the new theology that lies behind it.[9] At this point we may regret that the English translation is not as accurate as it should be (n. 7 of the Ordo):

a. rendering "ex more" by "ordinarily the sacrament is administered by the bishop" is too strong, so that one could misunderstand the text as if the bishop, after all, remains the "ordinary minister," which is what the Ordo precisely wants to avoid;

b. "Praeter Episcopum facilitate confirmandi ipso iure gaudent" is again too much weakened by rendering it by "the law gives the faculty ..."as if a pastor, confirming, would need a special faculty (even if this is given "by the law") as a derogation to the right of the bishop who, therefore, would again remain the only real and full minister. On the contrary, a pastor baptizing an adult or "school-child" or receiving into the Church one already baptized is ipso facto the proper minister of confirmation whenever the bishop cannot preside over the rite of initiation and only "in actu baptizandi vel recipiendi."

Should babies be confirmed?

As to confirmation of babies, the solution is not so obvious. Personally I think that it will remain difficult to come to the right approach to confirmation as long as we will not accept the practice of the primitive Church, still kept by the Eastern Churches. But we are psychologically so far away from this approach that I do not see it practiced yet in a general way and in the near future. Anyhow, there are two things we should absolutely hold on to:

— not to postpone confirmation beyond 6 or 7 years of age and, at any price,

— to administer it before first Holy Communion.

4. What then about the place of the bishop in Christian life? As B. Botte rightly points out, we may not confuse "psychological shock effect" with sacramental grace. Moreover, the role of the bishop would be much clearer and more effectively brought to the fore if, at the age of maturity, a special rite presided over by the bishop would be set up to "consecrate" this important event. This rite would be conceived as a sacramental referring to confirmation and reviving its grace. The Church has always celebrated such rites, as, for example, the investiture of a knight or a crusader in the Middle Ages, monastic profession, the rite of Depart of the French Routiers and so forth.[10]

It is needless to add, finally, that all the foregoing does not intend to do away with any of the "pastoral suggestions for the celebration of confirmation" which Bishop Buswell gives in his beautiful article in Worship, January 1972, p. 30 ff. Quite the opposite: if we so strongly propose a return to the apostolic tradition of confirming children, it is (next to the theological reasons) because of the pastoral motivation of the need of these children, the same motivation that makes the bishop insist on a kind and "pastoral" way of celebrating this sacrament.

In any case, we now stand at the beginning of a new pastoral concern for the sacrament of confirmation after several centuries of neglect. This fact involves several considerations. It is always hard to give up some former thinking which we have been used to but we have to set up some new patterns and approaches. We have to — but in doing so we should from the very beginning take the right approach and patterns. So-called "pastoral needs" can soon pass, regardless of how important and "permanent" they sometimes seem to be. But if we do not meet them according to the heritage of the Lord, proposed by the "constant tradition of the universal Church," we run the risk of sacrificing the real good of our faithful to a well-meant but in fact misunderstood "benefit." •


1 In my book, La Confirmation: doctrine et pastorate, Brugge 1958, p. 13-16; and my study, "Confirmation Today," in Worship, May 1959, p. 332-3, I have given some proofs, (I apologize for referring to my former publications: it is impossible to repeat the details in this short note.)

2 See the text in my book, La Confirmation, p. 27, n. 37.

3 One can find the explanation in my book, La Confirmation, p. 26 ff. and my article in Worship. May 1959, p. 337 f., and in Assemblies du Seigneur, number 52, p. 86 ff.

4 While preparing the rite of baptism of adults, a discussion came up about administering confirmation in actu haptizandi. An unprejudiced judge, expert in Eastern Church relations, told the commission that the consequences of separating confirmation from baptism and administering it at an adult age would be so serious for the future of our ecumenical relations that the perspectives of reunion would be irrevocably closed. Therefore the commission unanimously voted for keeping the organic sequence of Christian initiation and hence foresees as normal practice that the minister of baptism (of adults) should administer confirmation in one and the same celebration (save always the right of the bishop, who was, at that time, still the ordinary minister).

5 We would like to recommend strongly the reading of the short but basic study on this topic by B. Botte, one of the top-rank sacramental theologians, "A propos de la confirmation." in Nouv. Rev. Theol., Sept.-Oct. 1966, p. 848ff.

6 See my article in Worship, May 1959, p. 336 ff.

7 Reprinted by Stephen Sullivan, Readings in Sacramental Theology, Prentice-Hall, 1964, p. 187 ff.

8 See the study of the Italian theologian, E. Ruffini, "What is the Proper Age to Receive Confirmation?" in Concilium 38. p. 37 ff.

9 See the excellent study of A. M. Rodriguez, "The Minister of Confirmation," in Concilium 38. p. 28 ff.

10 See Assemblies du Seigneur, Vol. 52.

© Homiletic & Pastoral Review / Ignatius Press

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